Physiological Drought by Matthew Salesses

Physiological Drought by Matthew Salesses

Fiction, Vol. 3.1, March 2009

I can hear his hands slapping over his flat stomach from the bathroom, where he is pouring out the buckets of water we’ve saved for these makeshift showers. At the beginning of the drought, before the city reservoir ran dry, we had filled them up together. It has been thirty days now of emergency drought, and the three stores in our area have run out of bottled water, so that we have to take the bus to get something to drink. He is singing Ave Maria but doesn’t know the words and isn’t religious. He is getting ready to go look at the house down the street, anticipating the real estate agent I know he has a crush on. How can he not be hungover?

Pushing through the clutter from close to six years together I drag my hangover down the hall to the kitchen. Beer glasses stolen from French cafés, bone china from England, blue condom wrappers, a bucket of paint, art prints from our year in New York. Under the sink are stacks of our books. His Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, my Middlemarch. Dave is Holden Caulfield, Diane is Nicole Diver. When we met I was almost thirty and he was just out of college. The first time he said he loved me I didn’t say a word.

The bottles of water he said he would bring home from the restaurant where he cooks are nonexistent. I try to dry-swallow two aspirin but choke them up as they turn to clouds of chalk.

Last night he pulled his meanness out as if from a pocket and gave it to me, blurred and bleeding, carried a long way, like a note that had gone through the wash.


According to the weatherman New England hasn’t had a drought of this severity since the eighteenth century. The clouds refuse to give up their rain, even though they hug each other for room in the crowded sky.

The first week the drought received emergency status we went up to the roof of our apartment building with water balloons, but were too ashamed to throw them at anyone but each other. We stared down to the street we have lived on for four years.

The second week of the drought he told me about the four kinds of drought: meteorological, agricultural, physiological, and hydrological, and said we were in the first, second, and fourth, and the fourth was why the city had shut off our water. I asked what was the third, and he told me the third was when plants for some reason stopped being able to drink.


I undress and wait for him to come out of the bathroom and leave me, or for me to leave him. We will walk down the street to this other house, at least. I remember how happy we were when we made this appointment, the second week of the drought. Now we will keep it as if nothing is different, as if the problem were just dehydration from fucking too hard. I will tell him I’m going to talk and he is going to listen and shut up and not fight back. I will tell him a good deal and make him listen until one of us cries.


In just the space between two houses I could end us. All I would have to say is this (I’ve been saving it up for a year): I told you I needed that baby after all—that seven-pound, two-ounce boy that was suddenly not my body—and it’s still true.

I am sorry I told him last night for the first time, which should have been the second. I don’t know why I said: You ruined my life and not just mine. What I should have said was: Sometimes things that don’t happen change your life as much as things that do.

As we walk I hope he remembers what he said last night, that falling down is just the step before getting back up. What a bastard he is.

I could tell him I wish we had named our child before we let him go. I would have named him Justin. I could have been convinced otherwise. He’s over two years old now, far away from this drought. Maybe he wouldn’t have survived it had he been here, with us. Maybe we would have saved him our last drops of water, keeping him alive.

If I were braver I would say: (a) I doubt you’ll get over me. And (b) I remember I said I would never marry you; you never brought it up again.


We get to the apartment and the real estate agent holds the door for me and Dave holds the door for her. Her name is Joan. She is incorrectly beautiful: all her features are wrong in a way I could point out, but I couldn’t deny a sort of attractiveness that any woman would hate. He doesn’t let it show that we’ve been fighting.

He is already on his way to the bedroom, brushing past the space in the entranceway where in our house he would have knocked over the little figurine he got me for our first Valentine’s six years ago. I would have spent the next hour cleaning up the shards of Buddha’s stomach and thinking of a place to put them where he would roll onto their sharp points. Instead I follow him and the smell of fresh cologne.

From the bedroom window I can see into our little house down the street, the apartment we just left. He digs his toes into the plush because he saw it in Die Hard.

Joan is saying, “I think a couple could be very happy here.”

I stare out the window to where, in our kitchen, on another day, I might be baking or rummaging around in the knives. I want to tell Joan that we’re only here because good people don’t break appointments, we’re only here because my boyfriend likes her.

“Who lived here before?” I ask.

“A woman with a family.”

“Does it matter who lived here before?” he says.

“My head hurts,” I say, “I need a glass of water.”

He puts his hand on my head. “What’s this,” he says.

It’s an old joke. “Brainsucker,” he will say, “what’s it doing? Starving.”

I walk out to the kitchen and Joan yells that the faucet doesn’t work because of the drought, but I try it anyways. A little brown sludge leaks out with what used to be water.

“I told you,” she says, without looking.

I look around: three bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a covered-up past. I can see how someone had loved this apartment and then cleaned it and cleared it out to sell. I can see how it still breathes with the stench of their breath.

When I return he’s lying on the bed. “It must take a while before someone new buys the place,” he’s saying. “What happens in the meantime? Is it rented out?”

Joan says the woman who owns it comes back from time to time.

The only dressings to the room now are the maroon drapes, a stained bureau, and the queen-sized bed in the middle where Dave lies, full of his youth in a new house.

I could make this place so cute. I mentally decorate it with all the things that we own, that I own. I don’t ask how much because I know it’s out of our price range.

Joan says the furniture that is left stays with the house. “Isn’t that bed comfortable,” she says. Dave bounces on it to show her it is.

I say I’m going to walk around to the other rooms. Joan gets ready for me to leave, and I hear them begin to speak as I go.

I find two ice cubes in the freezer that must be from before the drought, and slip them cold into the well of my mouth.

The second week of the drought I started coming home from the flower shop early, before he left for work. He cooked for me four nights in a row, which I knew he hated to do before working. We made an agreement to move to a bigger apartment. He told me stories I had never heard before, like how he traded his coat for the chance to talk with me, the first time we met, to the friend who introduced us.

The third week of the drought fires broke out in the Appalachians and Dave said the water that was left would go to fighting them. He said the worst drought in history had killed five million people in China.

I suck on the ice cubes thinking how the drought has made him more talkative.

Eight hours ago he said he was saying goodbye. I said, “Don’t worry, I look my best in rear-view mirrors.” One last, clever line. You know, objects in mirror. . . or am I getting that backwards?


Now I think of a morning he wasn’t there, when I pushed through the forest of wedding dresses, talking about him and choosing a gown for my sister. Mom was plotting me a chart of his pluses and minuses; Lou was in the dressing room trying on the gowns we chose, snow-covered pines like the big-butted trees Dave and I had seen in the Alps. They had long trains as if winter had forgotten where the tree ended and ground began. I was hunting out the newer dresses and Mom was focused on the old-fashioned ones, which, she said, had come back in style. We had been let in before the store opened as a favor to her current boyfriend, who knew the owner.

I was explaining to her about Europe, once again, how the mountains were higher and seemed older and about how Vermont meant nothing to me now. I was explaining to her how Dave and I were in it for the long haul.

“You two are really happy,” she said.

I told her to stop equivocating. She didn’t ask what it meant.

“You know I support you,” she said, “but what can he give you?”

Everything to break a heart.

(Later that day, when I said the dresses were all for skinny people, he would hint at how I’d gained weight.)

What could he give me? “You mean other than love?” I said.

We kept shaking the branches of those dresses loose from the rack and handing them into the dressing room. It was early because Mom had to be in to work by nine, and only Lou had any energy. I felt weak at the belt and Mom couldn’t stop wanting a cigarette, but Lou was an engine sputtering our spare parts into motion. What about you, she would say, when’s it your turn?

“Honey, you got to start thinking about your future,” Mom said. “I know you don’t think you’re old, but your little sister is getting married.”

I was aware of that. “I’m thinking about my future,” I told her.

“What about this kid says ‘wedding’?”

“What about Lou and Jared says wedding? And don’t call him a kid.”

“I’m just saying the things moms say, you know?” Then she said, “You’re starting to show,” and I panicked.

Any day I will have to tell her she was right about him, now that she’s gotten used to the idea of us together. After everything I said to convince her so I could convince myself. I wonder if he’ll want to stay friends, to make it easier on her.


The third week of the drought was when I noticed how dry my mouth was getting. Dave said he had a solution, and I sucked him off the way he liked. He bought me hand moisturizers and wrapped them up like presents. He talked about going on vacation. He said they wouldn’t let us take liquids on the plane, so a vacation would be perfect for when we were all dried out.

I remember how I brought him to see Mom after the first year passed and we were still all over each other. She took us up to the lake in Maine that my family went to every summer, and he lay in the hammock reading short stories by New Yorkers, laughing once in a while like a whine.

In the evenings we went swimming together: he would kick out from our little dock too hard and pull me along past the places I had wanted to stop and show him. Just things I thought he’d like, like the loon’s nest and the mud where in the old days I almost always saw moose tracks.

The third week of the drought he filled the tub with precious water he had saved and heated and we took a bath. The fourth week he said he regretted it.

The fourth week he started to speak in abstractions, saying the drought would go on forever. He made bad jokes like saying, “I drought it” instead of “I doubt it.”

I remember we had fireworks on the lake that summer and he put on a big show and then acted like it was nothing. I could tell Mom was impressed then. I could tell she was thinking he could light up the world for me. I had to make her see how it was worth it to put one baby down as a bet against returns. She wrote me her compliments in list form later that month, right up next to her complaints, bulleted and organized the way she wrote everything she knew she was seeing objectively and I wasn’t.


Now he’s in the other room, laughing with another woman. I lie down in this bed next door, head drowning for water. Sinking here I can’t help but worry, how will everything be divided if he leaves me? The only way I can think is to smash it all down the middle and leave it in halves. Who’s to say the woman to whom Solomon didn’t give the baby would have loved it less? Maybe there were extenuating circumstances, a man, life. Maybe she loved what she had so much she couldn’t let anything remain. Halves can be better than all or nothing.

The fourth week of the drought Dave said a person could only live three days without water and one without fun. He painted my nails silver and then made me dance so close I speckled his shirt. The fourth week of the drought he made me fight him, he said he expected me to fight back better than I did.

(I have questions for our future selves. I would ask my future self, do you think of him fondly, so I would know how much I had to ruin those memories now and how much of them I could leave intact. I would ask his, do our stories match, so if they didn’t I could set him straight before he leaves.)

I want to ask, do you remember when we went to Europe and I walked around blacked out, for example, missing the fact that we were standing by the Arc de Triomphe, as you told me afterwards? In the moment you were the attraction I couldn’t wait to see. The Dave you talked about being overseas.

If I have to remember I want to remember him like this, the good Dave.

The fourth week of the drought I closed the flower shop—we had no more flowers—and Suzy came over from next door to say hello. She’s five years old, twice the age of our baby. Her nanny brought her over. When Suzy hugged me I could feel the parts of him that had grown on me. I offered Suzy a plastic rose, one that would last. Her nanny asked if there wasn’t anything real. I shrugged and held the child in my arms.


But I keep coming back to that day with my mother, my sister getting ready for marriage in the changing room, three years ago. I watched Mom choose an awful dress humped up around the waist, like the one in the picture of her wedding to Dad, and ask please could she see one of her daughters in this. I hadn’t eaten yet that morning and felt dizzy.

Mom always said she should burn that picture, but I knew she would keep it, not because she loved the dress but because a wedding was a wedding. She held a cigarette in her mouth and her lipstick rubbed off on the filter. She couldn’t smoke in the shop; she said it was for the oral fixation.

When Lou was ready for a change she would thump on the door and we handed over another gown. We had already gone through what could have clothed a country of brides. I imagined her in there: puffing herself up like a cat seeing its reflection. Back then I could laugh about how we resembled ourselves.

(Sometimes Dave woke me in the night to tell me he’d dreamed I left him for another man. How I was such a bad person in his sleep. He would go back to bed and I would stay up, trying not to listen to his puffing snores. In the morning he would act like I was a whore, and—somehow—I would feel like one.)

I wanted my mother to say I had someone I shouldn’t let go of. I gave away the secrets I could: being carried around the little villages in the Alps on Dave’s back, long meals of long conversations and lots of the sound of his French, how he took candids of me and how in each one I was smiling as he caught me by surprise.

“He’s really that good?” she asked.

“He’s really that good.”

When I went home Dave was still in bed, sleeping sitting up like a freak, guarding a dirty house.

Lou shouted that we had forgotten her. We could hear her shift things around, turning the changing room into her closet. “When will there be time?” she asked. “Ma, you got to work in less than an hour. Dave’s great. Jared liked him.”

Mom whispered to me but I didn’t hear. She shoved a couple gowns over the door. She swept through the designers to get to our price range, in the back, like dusting the snow off of interrupting pines.

I wish I had known then how the first week of the drought Dave held me up by my ankles while I drank a glass of water to cure hiccups. The second week he slipped ice cubes down my skin. The third week he took me to the aquarium and dared me to swim with the seals. The fourth week he made a single cup of coffee and left it, empty, by the sink.

Mom started an avalanche of gowns. She was clumsy in the most normal situations, something that surprised people about her.

“You have to listen to me,” I said. I thought if I could convince her then we would be real enough to sacrifice for. I wanted to be as permanent as she could make us. By then I would have told her anything to make her love him; she always thought of all my boyfriends as Dad.

“I’m listening.”

“You have to listen to me,” I said again. We were stumbling over white fabric.

“I’m listening,” Mom said. I pictured Dave running off and leaving Mom high and dry.

I thought of Lou not eating for three weeks to fit into these dresses, her fiancé by her side to pick out the china and floral arrangements, things mattering only in the small sphere of a couple tented out in the midst of endless pine gowns. I looked at photos of prospective families for months and Dave never joined in the adoption.

(The fifth week of the drought he was licking my nipples when Mom called and kept licking while I was talking on the phone. The fifth week of the drought I was home all day and so was he, and I saw for the first time in years how he spent his time doing none of the things I asked. The fifth week of the drought he would wait until it was just before he left for work and then he would try to fuck me.)

“You have to listen,” I said. When I gave birth, Mom waited by my bedside holding Dave’s hand, and with every scream I wished my pain would bring them closer together, with every scream I knew my baby and I were growing farther apart.

Mom grabbed at the dresses. I reached for a falling white sequined number that had caught my eye like an exploding galaxy, and the sequins fell off in my hands. The beads fell to the floor, some of them settling silently in the folds of the fallen dresses but most of them scattering with the patter of hail. Lou screamed from the dressing room. I thought we must have been ignoring her thumps again. It wasn’t my fault. The dress tore itself up on its own.

“You ruin everything,” my sister shouted. “Everything has to be about you. When will there be time? I’m trying to have a wedding.”

The fifth week of the drought I realized the fact that we had a baby out there, somewhere in the world, and that my mother knew about it, was why I had stayed with Dave for so long. (Last night he half-fucked me on the bed before taking me out. He held my arms against my back and I let him. Last night he fought with me and was too drunk to make it to bed, and he held me tight to him, and I held him back, on the floor.)

I threw up the entire trip home. Mom took a half-day at work to drive me over the state line back to Massachusetts. On the way I convinced her the adoption was a good idea; I’m not sure how; she didn’t want to break my heart. I let myself believe her blessing was all we needed. She drove slowly and let me talk. We pulled over for me to puke over the barrier. She rubbed my stomach as she drove. I felt young; she made me feel young. I stuck my arm out against the seatbelt, keeping it loose. We worried about what to do with the dress; only Mom’s boyfriend knew the owner. Nobody had seen. It was a cheap dress and I offered to pay for it or find someone I knew who might want it. I never told Dave about it and I remember when he yelled about the bill.


I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you.

In my dream, as I put my head down in this other room, and my lips peel back like a flower dying of thirst, we have lived in this house—three bedrooms, two bathrooms—for twenty years. Here on the dresser is the little snowglobe of Napoleon. Here over the desk is the map of the world. He sleeps in the bed and I check in on him while frying mushrooms, his favorite, so the aroma will wake him. Here is the chair my father used to rock in; I saved it from Mom’s wrath. Here is his mother’s portrait that was left him in her will. I will walk from room to room; it takes a lifetime, and in between are the signs that it was good. In the steam on the mirror I will catch a message he left me. Here in the third room is an old crib. There on the couch is the faintest red, from spilled wine, from a fight. First the front hall crumbles into bitten fingernails, then the back wall falls into broken dreams, then the floor opens and everything folds together like his shut eyes. In his dreams tonight I will whisper these sweetest words. From wherever he is then he will hear me in his sleep and know it’s me. He will know it’s the woman of his best six years. He will hear my words go by, in clusters of three that could have been his: I will pull their strands from my threaded heart so that the next time I say them, forgetting him, I will know that nothing I give is second-hand.

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